Blood tests bolster DWI charges

Police and prosecutors in Charlotte are turning to a powerful tool – blood tests – to convict drunken drivers.

Suspects in the past have been able to improve their odds of beating the charges by refusing to take alcohol breath tests.

But North Carolina's recently strengthened drunken-driving laws allow police to obtain blood tests of suspects who refuse to blow into an Intoxilyzer, a machine that determines their alcohol level.

“The people who are refusing are the ones who are really drunk, have really bad driving records or have been convicted of DWI before,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Andy Kornberg said. “They're the ones we really need to be targeting.”

Mecklenburg Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lillie said the new tactic is working. He estimates that law enforcement officers have obtained search warrants for blood in at least 100 cases since authorities began taking advantage of the new law, which went into effect in December 2006. The prosecutor said he's not aware of any acquittals in those cases.

“We're getting convictions we might not have gotten in the past,” Lillie said. “Getting blood from DWI suspects who refuse to blow is the best evidence we can have.

“It's not about making the arrest. It's about making the case. We've got to have the evidence. The blood tests give us the evidence to get convictions.”

Defense attorney George Laughrun, who specializes in DWI cases, says the blood tests are making it harder to obtain acquittals. He estimates that seven out of every 10 motorists charged with DWI are being convicted.

“The conviction rate has gone way up,” Laughrun said. “The blood test is very powerful evidence. It's a lot harder now to get an acquittal than it was a year ago. It's a new day.”

An Observer investigation, published in 2004, showed that in roughly 75 percent of North Carolina's 39 judicial districts, suspects who refused to take breath alcohol tests were convicted less often than those who submitted to the test.

In Mecklenburg County, about 60 percent of suspects who went to trial after blowing into the Intoxilyzer were convicted, according to the newspaper's study of cases handled from 2003 through February 2004. For those who declined the test, the conviction rate dropped to about 50 percent.

“They knew if they didn't blow, they'd have a chance of getting off,” Lillie said.

Police have been using the new law to obtain blood tests since last year, at least on a limited basis. More police officers are regularly being trained in how to use them.

A lot of pieces have to fall into place to allow blood tests to be used. Prosecutors, working with police attorneys, crafted a search warrant specifically to obtain blood in DWI cases. At the jail, DWI suspects who refused to blow have to be taken quickly before a magistrate. Police also have to be prepared to present magistrates with the search warrant and be ready to transport suspects to a hospital where blood can be drawn.

“I'm hoping that within a few years, it'll be common practice for all law enforcement officers in Mecklenburg County to use search warrants to get blood whenever DWI suspects refuse to blow,” Lillie said.

Each year in Mecklenburg County, 5,000 to 6,000 motorists are charged with DWI. About 20 percent of them refuse to blow.

Capt. Kornberg, who heads the CMPD Highway Interdiction and Traffic Safety unit, said his officers in February began obtaining blood tests in all cases where suspects refused breath tests.

Those officers have so far obtained 12 search warrants for blood. The blood-alcohol levels on those suspects ranged from 0.13 percent to 0.27 percent, Kornberg said. It's against the law in North Carolina to drive with an alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more.

Kornberg said that since February, only about 3percent of the 310 suspects the officers in the HITS unit have charged with DWI refused to blow.

“Not as many people are refusing because the officers are letting them know if they refuse, we're going to be getting their blood anyway,” he said.